Modernity: Enlightenment or Anti-Enlightenment?

Radical Enlightenment is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process. Its chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights, and status irrespective of what they believe or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and that consequently all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or nonreligious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations equally respected by law and government. Its universalism lies in its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally.

– Jonathan Israel,  A Revolution of the Mind

Think about it, read those words again a second, maybe even a third time. Then ask yourself this: What is at stake in this enlightenment project? Reason, universalism, and emancipation. The Age of the Enlightenment spawned our modern world, and still effects us with its contagious ideas on equality, liberty, race, gender issues, and, most of all the right to certain inalienable rights based on natural law. Yet, under the veneer, the surface of our histories is that other tradition, the darker modernity that some call the Counter-Enlightenment. Yet it is much more than a counter it is a deadly enemy, so needs a more forceful appellation: the Anti-Enlightenment. Some may well ask: Were there two modernities? A Radical and a Reactionary path to the modern world? And, are we still playing out the dark political history of this ancient battle? As we think through the issues surrounding modernism we should ask ourselves a simple question: Which modernity – the Enlightenment model or the Anti-Enlightenment model? There seems to be a confusion as to which modernity is more viable in our world today. The choice is before us, shall we side with the radical philosophes of the original Enlightenment; or, with their foes of the Anti-Enlightenment? For me the choice is clear: the tradition of the radical party of the Enlightenment traditions holds for me the only viable path forward as we think through issues of modernity and the politics it spawned. But why has the other modernity, the Anti-Enlightenment tradition displace the original Enlightenment project, how did it attain such an insidious hold over our world and spawn the neoliberal worldview? First we need an understand of just what the Enlightenment is, but more than that we need a better understanding of its enemies, the Anti-Enlightenment tradition which has for two hundred years from the time of Herder and Burke maligned both the philosophes and their ideas of reason, universalism, and emancipation.

If one could choose only three texts to typify the Radical Enlightenment which ones would you choose? For me it would be simple: John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Immanuel Kant’s Reply to the Question: What is Enlightenment?, and Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: each a refinement of the central dictum of the Enlightenment – the liberation or emancipation of men and women everywhere. Yet, it would be such revolutionaries as Robespierre and the Jacobins’s  who would castigate the original radical enlightenment philosophes complaining that the “modern philosophy” opposes “feeling,” and especially the sentiments of the ordinary person. Here, ironically, Robespierre’s Jacobinism closely converged with royalist Counter-Enlightenment ideology, both propagating the myth of the Enlightenment as a coldly clinical, unfeeling machine of rational ideas, brutalizing natural sentiment and destroying instead of furthering what is best in human life. This allegation was taken up internationally and became a stock theme of British attacks on the “modern philosophers” in the 1790s.1

Continue reading